I clearly recall the day that I first came across Professor George’s brilliant work, Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion and Morality in Crisis, while browsing the shelves at my campus bookstore one afternoon. More by accident than design, I had wandered into the Law and Legal Theory section of the bookstore. As a psychologist with a professional interest in contemporary Continental Philosophy, intellectual history, and philosophy of social science – as well as an abiding affection (some might say affliction) for dime-store quality science fiction and fantasy novels – it likely goes without saying that this section of the bookstore was not one of my usual haunts. Nonetheless, I was immediately drawn to the title of George’s book, standing out as it did from among the other rather staid and uninvitingly titled volumes of legal history and theory surrounding it. I have long been drawn to the “clash of orthodoxies” in my own discipline, especially where the reigning positivist orthodoxy profoundly and problematically shapes the way in which psychologists study and explain (or, perhaps more accurately, explain away) religion, spiritual experience, and morality.
I came to feel that i was being taught by a master thinker... of social, legal, and ethical policy
As I stood there leafing through Professor George’s book, reading its first few pages, I was immediately struck not only by the author’s rigorous and careful style of argumentation, but also by his clear, engaging, and penetrating prose. I knew at that moment what my purchase at the bookstore that day must be and, as soon as the necessary transactions at the checkout counter were completed, I returned to my office and spent the next three hours reading one of the more enlightening and stimulating books I have ever encountered. As I made my way through its pages, I came to feel that I was being taught by a master thinker how to navigate the dangerous waters of contemporary social, legal, and ethical policy and practice. I have never forgotten that experience, it left a profound and lasting impact on the course of my own career and thinking over the past ten years.
In the intervening years, I have had the opportunity to meet Professor George, listen to several of his presentations, and read some others of his published works. In every case, I have been edified by his approach, challenged by his rigor, and blessed by his insights and the care with which he treats matters of genuine significance. Thus, it was with real excitement that I learned of Professor George’s most recent publication of a collection brief essays treating a broad range of timely and controversial topics, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism. The essays in the collection (some published previously) stretch from the nature of constitutional limits on federal power to the threats inherent in “judicial despotism,” from the question of when life begins to the question of whether there exists a right to die, and from the role that the reality of God for Lincoln played in the composition of the Gettysburg Address to the role Harry Blackmun’s hidden moral assumptions played in the outcome of Roe v. Wade. To have these essays collected in one place and made readily available is a real treat.
Professor George never fails to approach even the most contentious topics with grace
As is always the case with Professor George’s writing, the essays in this volume are concise, clearly argued, and enlightening. Though consistently arguing his points from a natural law perspective – or, more accurately, from the perspective of the “’new’ natural law theory” of thinkers such as John Finnis and Germain Grisez – Professor George always takes care to honestly and succinctly represent the positions he opposes as he articulates point-by-point responses to them. His singular ability to immediately get to the heart of almost any complex matter, effectively articulating not only his own perspective and its necessary implications but also those of the defenders of liberal secularism, is perhaps nowhere on clearer display than in the essays that make up this volume. Over and over again, the essays in this book demonstrate that Professor George is – in the words of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan (who is most certainly not a fan of many of the views he holds) – someone who even those who profoundly disagree with him must nonetheless respect for “his sheer brilliance, the analytic power of his arguments, [and] the range of his knowledge.” Unlike so many of the popular pundits and essayists who weigh-in on the controversial issues of our day, on either side of the conservative-progressive divide, Professor George never fails to approach even the most contentious topics with a welcome combination of grace, respectful consideration for the importance of the issue at hand, and an unwavering commitment to rigorous analysis.
Regardless of one’s philosophical or political persuasion, Professor George’s Conscience and Its Enemies is a truly wonderful book, a must-read for anyone serious interested in developing a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of the important social and moral issues of our day.
Robert P. George’s, Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism, ISI Books, 2013, 290 pages